When people use their imagination to develop new ideas, those ideas are heavily structured in predictable ways by the properties of those existing categories and concepts. This is true for scientists, artists, inventors, politicians and business people. Consider the following accident which was reported in The American Railroad Journal in 1835:
“As a train was approaching the depot at Paterson, an axle of the leading car gave way, which overturned that and the following two cars. None of the passengers were injured, though they felt the shock of the concussion. Mr. Speer, the conductor, a very industrious and sober man, was seated on the car at the break, and unfortunately was crushed to death under the load.”
Mr. Speer was the only casualty. What factors contributed to his untimely death? Certainly there was the immediate cause — the breaking of the axle and the overturning of the cars — but there is a more subtle cause as well. Note that Mr. Speer was riding on the car, not in it, and that none of the passengers, who were inside, was hurt. Why was he not in the car? What in the world was he doing on top of the car? Speer’s death was the result of a design flaw that required conductors to ride on the outside of cars.
This flaw is an example of the phenomenon of structured imagination. Early designs for railway cars were heavily influenced by the properties of the stagecoach, the most common vehicle of the day. The first railway cars were little more than stagecoaches with wheels on tracks, with no central aisle and designed so that conductors had to ride outside on running boards. The idea of a central aisle was considered odd and even unsanitary, based on the notion that it would become one long spittoon. Finally, as was true of stagecoaches, the brakes were located on the outside and were operated by the conductor who was seated on the top front of the car.
What this suggests is that even highly creative individuals and the ideas they develop are susceptible to the constraining influences of structured imagination. Their idea of a design for a railway car was heavily influenced by what they knew, understood, and were most familiar with — the stagecoach.
In genius, there is a tolerance for unpredictable avenues of thought. The result of unpredictable thinking may be just what is needed to shift the context and lead to a new perspective. When you come up with crazy or fantastical ideas, you step outside your cone of expectations — which is what happened to a manufacturer of dinner plates who had a problem with packaging. The plates were wrapped in old newspapers and packed in boxes. Every packer would eventually slow down to read the papers and look at the pictures. Most employees would drop to about 30 percent efficiency after a few weeks on the job.
The manufacturer tried using other material for packing, but that proved too expensive; the newspapers had been free. They tried using newspapers in different languages, but these were hard to obtain. They even offered incentives to workers to increase the number of plates wrapped, but without great success. Finally, one day in a meeting an exasperated supervisor said they should tape the workers’ eyes shut so they couldn’t read. This absurd comment created a lot of laughter as the others joked about his comment. But the supervisor had an “Aha!” moment: he got the idea to hire blind people to do the packing. The company not only greatly increased its packing efficiency but also received tax benefits for hiring the disabled.
A way to break up your rigidity of thinking is to deliberately explore the absurd and unusual. This gives you the freedom from design or commitment and allows you to juxtapose things which would not otherwise have been arranged in this way and to construct a sequence of events which would not otherwise have been constructed.
Suppose, for example, you want to improve morale in your company. You would first list several odd, unusual or absurd ideas about the problem.
Absurd Ideas: Allow people to stay at home and attend to household and landscape needs with full pay. E.g., three hours to mow a law, one week to paint a room, two weeks to repair a roof, four hours to repair a fence, and so on.
- Give every employee a company luxury car for personal use as long as they are employed.
- Give employees the same pension plan US senators have: Their annual pay for life with all comprehensive medical benefits.
- Pay people to stay home and attend to household needs.
Extract the principle and build it into a practical idea. Paying people to stay home involves the principle of working on homes and landscapes. IDEA: Offer employees the services of a handyman as a benefit. Employee pays for materials; employer employs and pays the handyman to fix sinks, hang wallpaper, and so on.
Suppose you want to control the illegal whale harvesting by the Japanese whalers.
Crazy Idea: The Coast Guard boards and captures whalers. The whalers are then ransomed back to their Japanese owners. This would make the activity unprofitable, but it is also unlawful. We would become pirates.
Practical Idea: Pirating reminds us of the Somalian pirate ships off the coast of Africa. This inspired the thought of one way of fighting an illegal activity is to use an illegal enforcement activity. The final idea all this inspired is to make it a legal exemption for the Somali pirates and allow them to hijack illegal Japanese Whalers anywhere on the oceans and hold them for ransom.
Using criminals to help fight crime is an interesting thought that has led to other innovative solutions. A city was infested with drug activities and the police were overwhelmed. One workshop team came up with the crazy idea of treating drug dealers like entrepreneurs. One entrepreneurial idea was to assist drug dealers increase their profit by helping them eliminate their competitors. Poster were printed and posted around the city. The posters were titled “Attention Drug Dealers: Is Your Competition Costing You Money? We offer a free service to help you eliminate your drug competition!” All the would-be clients need to do is jot down on the poster the names, addresses and dealing habits of their business rivals and mail it to the police station.
Creative-thinking techniques break up your conventional thinking patterns which stimulate new thinking patterns that lead to new ideas and concepts that you cannot get using your usual way of thinking.